Brainy Is The New Sexy

The popular series, Friends, became a defining feature of 1990’s television. Even today, over 20 years since its release, it remains amongst the most watched television shows. It is based on the lives of six friends in their 20s, living in Manhattan. One of them is a palaeontologist, and has a doctorate. In fact, he was one of the brightest minds at college.

Ross’ character is an embodiment of an archetypal scholar in popular culture – he is not popular at college, he is not perceived as fun to hang out with, and is, naturally, attracted to a girl with no academic inclinations. In fact, his doctorate becomes a running gag throughout the series. Therefore, by default, he was one of the least popular characters. So what does this reflect about pop culture and its perception of intelligence?

As Hopkins states, it signals a ‘harsh embrace of anti-intellectualism’. The intellectual in the group is mocked the minute he talks about his studies or his interests. The topics that draw everyone’s attention are relationships, sex, and shopping. The voice of reason and intellect is necessarily drowned in this din.

This pattern can be observed in several other shows. Ted Mosby from How I Met Your Mother suffers a similar fate. His love for literature is mocked and a poetry recital is invariably met by groans from his friends. Leonard from Big Bang Theory is romantically linked with his attractive neighbour Penny, who, once again, has absolutely no academic inclinations. Further, his nerdy gang is portrayed as being severely socially inept.

Research indicates that majority individuals with high intelligence can adjust well to society and display adequate social skills. They are perfectly capable of establishing personal and professional ties with others.  They also tend to enjoy the company of other intellectuals. And yet, pop culture fits them into a mould – where they are desperately trying to be a part of the ‘cool’ gang.

One famous television series that rejects this misconception of intelligence and actually glorifies intelligence is Sherlock. Sherlock is a ‘consulting detective’ based in London. Along with his friend and ex-military doctor, John Watson, Sherlock is involved in solving some of Britain’s highest profile crimes. Unlike most popular culture depictions of intellectual characters, Sherlock does not crave or wish to be a part of the mainstream social life. On the contrary, he actively avoids it. He has a small social group of individuals who appreciate his intellect. His primary focus is the exercising of his cognitive abilities. And there is no popular attractive female figure he vies for. The only centre of feminine attraction for Sherlock in the entire series was Irene Adler. Adler is an enigmatic persona, capable of manipulating even Sherlock Holmes. The tension between the two, however, is not based solely on physical attraction. It is the intellectual chemistry between them that sets them apart.

This is perhaps a closer depiction of intelligence than most other series. While intelligent individuals are capable of social interactions, they prefer smaller social groups. They do not crave constant socialising. In fact, the lesser social interactions they must endure, the happier they are.  Sherlock embodies this.

When the series was nominated for the Emmy, neither Benedict Cumberbatch (playing Sherlock) nor Martin Freeman (playing Watson) were present at the ceremony to collect their awards. And this was simply because they did not expect to win. Even critics considered them outliers. Today, Sherlock is among BBC’s greatest commercial successes and also its largest export – it is licensed in 224 territories worldwide. 

Other shows such as Lie To Me and House depict geniuses in their respective fields. And though these characters are not socially lovable, they are well loved for their intellect. Doctor Who, which is a significant part of British popular culture, shows the Doctor as a primary consultant for world leaders when everything else fails. He is among the most loved characters of pop culture today.

The success of these series shows that there is an audience that appreciates and enjoys the celebration of intelligence. In fact, there is a section of the population that derives pleasure from witnessing and participating in intellectual conversations – the sapiosexuals.

For the longest time, pop culture and intelligence were seen as contradictory. However, the fact is that individuals involved in several pop culture hits are intellects themselves. Natalie Portman has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Harvard. James Franco pursued English at UCLA. Mayim Bialik has a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA. And the list could go on. Why is there, then, such an under-representation of intellectual appreciation in popular culture? Maybe it is time to realise that intelligence needs to be appreciated and there is an audience who will appreciate it. After all, brainy is the new sexy.

Chinmayee Kantak